Reed-Custer Head Coach Jerry Cougill has seen a lot in his 40-year career including a state championship for his Comets in 1985. He’s also watched five of his players move on to the Major Leagues, and numerous others play college baseball. He knows that nothing in baseball, especially a state title, is a given. Baseball can be a tough sell to athletes in the Midwest, but Cougill keeps his program dynamic by working with Reed-Custer’s football and basketball teams to make sure his players have every chance to perform in the spring.
Right now Reed-Custer wades in to the IHSA state tournament with an impressive 23-5 record. The Comets survived a scare on May 18th against Dwight in the 2A Reed-Custer Regional Semi-Final. They coughed up four runs in the first before they slowly pushed across five of their own, with the game winner coming in the fifth. Reed-Custer will go on to face the winner of the Wilmington-Bishop McNamara Regional Semi-Final which will be played today (May 19th @4:30) at Reed-Custer. A Reed-Custer/Wilmington matchup would feature two of Will County’s most successful baseball programs. Whoever the Comets host in the Regional Final, Coach Cougill knows his team will have to play a complete game to move on the Seneca Sectional.
WillCountyBaseball.org spent some time talking with Coach Cougill about the changing dynamics of high school baseball, and how he prepares his teams for the tough early months of the spring that lead into the tension of the state tournament.
WCB.org: Coach, how long have you been here at Reed-Custer?
Coach Cougill: “Well, I tell people that I’ve been here since Moses was in the bulrushes. I started here in the fall of 1973. I just graduated from Eastern Illinois University. I had just barely turned 21. I went through Eastern in three years and I was young for my age in my high school graduating class anyway. So I was very, very young to get started.
“Rich Walden, my assistant coach, was on my very first team here at Reed-Custer. He was a junior. You’d never know it by looking at him now, but he had a full head of hair back in those days. He was one of those guys who, by sixth period in the afternoon, he needed to shave again. So the very first road game we went to we got off the bus and the opposing coach walked right by me and walked up to Rich and stuck out his hand and says, ‘Hi Coach, how ya doing?’ And Rich says, ‘I’m not the coach, he is.’ So we still laugh about that.
WCB.org: The Northern part of Will County sometimes we forget how established you are down here. I know you won a state championship in 1985. You’ve seen a lot things around the county over the years. How would say Reed-Custer is holding up in Southern Will County?
Coach Cougill: “First of all I would say this. Baseball in the Joliet area is fantastic. You would be hard pressed to find better baseball anywhere than what there is here. Probably the late, great Gordie Gillespie had something to do with that I’m sure – his influence. I know that there are a lot of coaches and players that learned a tremendous amount from him. I think at one point Illinois had the fifth most players in the major leagues. The Chicagoland area and especially the Joliet area has a rich history of producing talent.
“I know on that ‘85 team here when we won the state championship we had two major leaguers on that team. At the time we had right around 300 kids at our high school. And there were other kids on that team that were very talented, as well, that went on to play. So, it’s amazing to have that kind of talent in such a small community. And if you look around the community, of course, and you look at what Wilmington has done with all the talent that they’ve had there. Tanner Roark is in the big leagues. Coal City has had tremendous talent that has gone through that program. This area is very strong in baseball, and I hope and look to see it continue.”
WCB.org: Baseball is very serious in Will County. There are lots of excellent coaches and very competitive programs. The quality of baseball in Will County seems underrated by a lot area sports fans. Do you ever feel like that?
Coach Cougill: “Well, I don’t know. The kids who play baseball here know how important baseball is. They also love the game. I will say this, and I told our kids this. Baseball is a tough sport to love. And it is a tough sport for kids, nowadays, to love because of all the negativity that’s associated with the game. It is such a difficult game to play. Of course, we don’t always play on the best of facilities. We play in lousy, crappy weather. And a lot of kids would rather take another route. They would rather go play another sport. They would rather play one of the Friday night lights sports. Or they would rather play video games, get a job, or whatever. So our jobs as high school baseball coaches have never been more difficult for those reasons.
“The travel ball situation is a problem. I would really love for the Illinois High School Association to loosen some of the restrictions on high school coaches. We can’t do very much with our players during the winter months. Therefore players who can’t afford to play travel baseball, or have a private hitting instructor, or pitching instructor – they kind of get lost in the shuffle a little bit. Whereas the other kids they will go play. Their parents can pay the money for the private instruction and those kinds of things. And as a result I think you’re seeing a little bit of the influence of high school baseball being lost because of that.”
WCB.org: How do you manage your team with summer and travel teams? Coaches around the area deal with those issues differently. How do you deal with kids playing summer baseball?
Coach Cougill: “I don’t want you to think I’m giving travel ball a totally bad name. Travel ball is the main vehicle now for kids getting scholarships. It’s so much easier for a college coach to go see a travel ball tournament where he can see a team that has 6 or 8 or even more college prospects on one team. And so if he goes and sees two teams play there may be a dozen kids who they want to see, or at least a handful of kids that they’re interested in following. So the travel ball situation is good for kids as far as getting exposure just by its very nature. And that can’t be matched by the high school programs.
“With regard to what we do with our kids during the summer, we not only have travel programs to work around. We also have basketball and football to work around. Fortunately, here at Reed-Custer our football, basketball, and baseball programs work hand in glove. We work very closely together. All three coaches support each other’s programs. I’ve gone to football and basketball games and rooted for kids in all three sports, and those coaches do likewise.
“In the summer months I will have kids on two nights a week and three mornings a week where we will go to the weight room and we’ll have onfield practice. Then we’ll play two nights a week, and the kids will go to their travel ball teams on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Basketball will take them two nights a week, and some of those kids will go to shootouts on some weekends. Fortunately, for us, football lets us take the kids during the month of June, and we’re done in June. And then the football program takes them over in July. That’s how we work together in all three sports.”
WCB.org: Coach, after 40 years of coaching Will County baseball, do you have any general thoughts on baseball in the area?
Coach Cougill: “I would just say that the coaching is better. I think the clinics that coaches go to in the winter are better. I think the coaches are more baseball oriented. They’re not just a football or basketball coach doing it as a part-time coaching gig in the spring. They’re people that have a real interest in the sport.
“Without a doubt the coaching has gotten better through the years. The quality of play has gotten better. And along with that comes the expectations of parents, which is fine. Parents have a vested interest in their kids. Parents should be an advocate for their athlete and student. I don’t think that’s a negative thing. It can be a negative thing if parents don’t have realistic expectations.”
“There’s been changes through the years, but the kids that I have right now I would compare very favorably with the kids that I have coached through the years.”
WCB.org: With so much experience in the area, have you seen any Will County teams this year that might be able to compete for a state championship?
Coach Cougill: “To do that you obviously have to be very good, but you also have to be very lucky. We won it in ‘85, but we were just as good in ‘84. We should have won it in ‘84. In those days eight teams used to advance to the state tournament in Springfield. Two years in a row we beat two out of those eight teams who advanced to Springfield. You have to get a lucky break. The ball has to bounce your way. You can be very, very good but things still have to bounce your way. You can’t count on anything short of the ’27 Yankees.”
WCB.org: Is there any specific team in the area that has impressed you?
Coach Cougill: “If there was one I would say. They literally, virtually all play good baseball. We dropped down to 2A. Coal City and Herscher are the two teams in our conference that are our closest competitors. They’re very good. They are 3A this year so we don’t have to face them which we’re very happy about. We’re really not all that familiar with a lot of the 2A teams. We’re just going to do the best that we can and try to take care of business ourselves.”
Coach Cougill’s Comets, like all the teams in Will County, have to fight their ways out of Regionals before they advance. Cougill, and other area coaches, know that these early steps towards a state championship can be their teams’ most treacherous. The minefields of Willl County baseball are full of superb coaching and talent. Reed-Custer will take that next step on Saturday, May 21st at 11:00 AM @Comet Park in Braidwood.